LONDON: Thomas Hitzlsperger, the former Germany midfielder and captain, has confirmed he is gay.

The 31-year-old, who won 52 caps and played for Stuttgart, in Italy with Lazio and in the the Premier League football for Aston Villa, West Ham and Everton, made the announcement in the newspaper Die Zeit.

Germany international team-mate and Arsenal striker Lukas Podolski, Gary Lineker and Joey Barton are among those to have tweeted their support for Hitzlsperger.

Podolski said: “Brave and right decision. Respect, Thomas Hitzlsperger. His outing is a important sign in our time.”

Hitzsperger is the first top-level international to publicly reveal his homosexuality and said it was “a good time” to do so.

He added: “I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards.”

The midfielder said he has only realised “in the past few years” that he would “prefer to live together with another man”, adding: “I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am.”

However, he said the issue is taboo inside the dressing room and it had not always been easy to live with some of the comments.

He said: “Just picture 20 men sat around a table together drinking – you’ve just got to let the majority be, just as long as the jokes are halfway funny and the talk about homosexuality doesn’t get too insulting.”

High-profile athletes from other sports have openly discussed their sexuality in recent years, including British Olympic diver Tom Daley only last December.

Fashanu announcement

Examples in football are few and far between. In 1990, former England Under-21 international Justin Fashanu was the first professional footballer in Britain to reveal he was gay. He committed suicide eight years later, aged 37.

In February 2013, former United States and Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers said he was gay while Swedish footballer Anton Hysen, son of former Liverpool player Glenn Hysen, announced his homosexuality in 2011.

Hitzlsperger retired from playing in September 2013 at 31 after a series of injury problems. He captained Germany twice, on both occasions against Denmark.

He joined Villa as a teenager in 2000 from Bayern Munich and went on to play for Stuttgart, Lazio, West Ham and Wolfsburg, with a short stint at Everton before the end of his career.

It was during his five-year spell at Aston Villa that the Munich-born midfielder made his name and while at Villa Park he earned the nickname ‘Der Hammer’ because of his powerful left-foot shot.

The club issued on Twitter: “Everyone who knows Thomas from his time here at Villa has great respect for him, not only as the fine player he was but also as a man.

“His statement today is a straightforward statement and, along with our support as a club, we hope that everyone involved in the game extend to him their support as well.”

Hitzlsperger also enjoyed a successful international career, making his first senior international bow in 2004.

He represented Germany at the 2006 World Cup – though he only played 11 minutes of that competition – and the 2008 European Championship, where he started in the quarter-final, semi-final and final.

Campaign group Stonewall welcomed the announcement. Director of campaigns Sam Dick told BBC Sport: “It’s fantastic that he has been brave enough to openly discuss his sexual orientation.

“Every sports star who is willing to speak out makes it just that little bit easier for gay players and fans, and we hope, a new generation of footballers will feel confident enough to be themselves.”